So you feel a little overwhelmed by all those speeds? Not to worry. It’s really very simple.


Most bikes these days have anywhere from 18 to 27 speeds (gears). Why so many you ask? In order to make riding easier over different kinds of terrain where you might go from slow hill climbing to flat roads, you need a wide range of gears.

Mountain, Cross, Comfort and some Road bikes have 3 chainrings on the crank (that thing where the pedals are). These ‘triple’ cranks provide 3 ‘ranges’ of speeds you can use depending on the kind of riding you’re doing. The inner, smaller one, is for slower speeds and hill climbing. The middle one is for medium speeds on flat roads or small hills. The outer, larger one, is for higher speeds on flat roads. For most riding you will probably be using the middle chainring.

The freewheel (that group of sprockets on your rear wheel) which usually has between 6 and 9 sprockets allows you to make minor ‘speed’ changes within the basic 3 ranges.

But why as many as 9 sprockets? The more sprockets there are on the back, the less change in ‘speed’ there is between each shift.

Back in the days of the 3-speeds, when you shifted the gears there was a big difference in pedaling pressure and rate between the different speeds and you had to pedal harder or ease up more to ‘catch up’ to your normal pedaling rate and pressure depending on which gear you changed to.

But now, with a larger selection of speeds available, those differences are much smaller which translates to a smoother transition between speeds. With a little practice, you can find a pedaling rate and pressure that’s comfortable for you and maintain it without having to play catch up.


Front derailleur

The shift lever or twist grip shifter on the left side of your handlebar is for the front derailleur or gear. This shifter moves the ‘cage’ surrounding the chain back and forth between the 3 sprockets on your crank which puts the chain on the sprocket you desire. This is where you choose your 3 basic gear ranges.

Rear derailleur

The shifter on the right side of your handle bar is for the rear derailleur. This shifter moves the chain back and forth between the sprockets on the freewheel on your rear wheel. This is where you make the small changes within the range you chose using the front derailleur.

If you’re riding along and start going downhill and you find yourself pedaling faster, switch to a lower gear number (like from 5 down to 3) using the rear shifter and you won’t have to pedal as fast. If you start going up a hill and it gets harder to pedal, switch to a higher gear number (like from 3 to 5) and the pedaling will become easier and you won’t have to work as hard.
Similarly, If you’re picking up speed and pedaling faster and faster, shift to a lower gear number so you won’t have to pedal as fast. If you’re slowing down, and find yourself pedaling harder, switch to a higher gear number and the pedaling will become easier.


Using the proper gears is important for you and for your bike. Just as in any sport, if you want to know the proper way to use your ‘equipment’, watch how the professionals do it. For bicycle professionals, as for you, there are two main considerations. The first is getting the most speed and distance for the amount of energy expended. The second is wear and tear on themselves and their bikes.

You will never see a professional rider struggling along in a hard, or low, gear or standing up on the bike except on steep inclines or when it’s part of their race strategy. Most of the time you will see them pedaling at a high rate or cadence. For them this provides the most efficient transfer of energy to speed and distance as well as the best use of their overall physical energy. For you this means the best physical exercise as far as heart rate and physical conditioning are concerned. By pedaling at a high cadence, you are giving your heart a good workout and you’re keeping the blood flowing throughout your system (most importantly your legs) which gives you the best cardiovascular workout.

This higher cadence also reduces the wear and tear on you and on your bike. If you leave your bike in a high gear all the time, in other words a gear that’s hard to pedal in, all you’re doing is straining your joints and wearing yourself out faster. You’re also doing damage to your bike. Each time you put a lot of force on your pedals, the rear end of your bike flexes to the right a little bit. This flexing causes extra wear on your chain, the chainrings on your crank, the sprockets on your freewheel, and the mechanism inside the freewheel (think of it as a ratchet) that provides the freewheeling action.

For the professional rider, this extra wear and tear is a nuisance and unfortunately just a part of the sport. But for you, it means more trips to the bike shop more expensive repairs as your bike gets older. So in this case, being macho has no place. Back in the days of the single or even 3-speed bikes, you didn’t have much choice in the matter. You do now, so use it wisely.


Okay now, by the numbers. The number 1 showing on the indicator on your rear shift lever (the lever or twist grip on the right hand side of your handlebar) is usually hardest gear. As you push the shirt lever down or away from you, or twist the twist grip towards you it gets easier to pedal. So, 1 is the hardest and 7,8 or 9 (depending on how many sprockets you have on your freewheel) is the easiest. Simple, huh?
So if you’re riding along in gear number 3 for example and are coming to a stop sign, gradually switch to number 5 or 6 so it’s easier to pedal when you start up again. Or if you’re coming to an incline or a hill, do the same thing so you don’t have to work as hard.
Conversely, if you’re riding in number 6 and you are increasing your speed or or going down hill, gradually switch to numbers 3 or 2 so you aren’t pedaling as fast.

Note: In some rare instances, these numbers are reversed. It will be obvious to you if this is the case.


This is the technical section and I promise we won’t be too offended if you skip it.

Gear ratios. A 1 to 1 gear ratio on a bike means having the same number of teeth on the chainring of the crank as on the sprocket of the freewheel. It also means that when you pedal your crank for one revolution, your wheels rotate one revolution which moves your mass (the weight of you and your bike combined) roughly five to seven feet depending on the size of your wheels.
A 2 to 1 ratio means having twice as many teeth on the front chainring as on the rear sprocket. It also means that one revolution of the crank equals two revolutions of your wheels which moves your mass twice as far or roughly 10 to 14 feet.
Moving the same mass twice as far with the same number of revolutions means working twice as hard.

Inertia is also a factor. Once your bike is in motion, inertia kicks in and it takes less energy to keep it moving at a constant speed. Depending on the speed you reach, you might end up riding at a gear ratio of 3 or 4 to 1 or higher which is why you want to switch to lower gears when coming to a stop to be closer to the 1 to 1 ratio when you start up again.

Crossover also comes into play. Riding with your chain on the middle chainring in front and on a higher, or smaller sprocket on the back gives you a particular gear ratio. If you switch to the large chainring in the front and a lower, or smaller sprocket on the back, you can achieve roughly the same gear ratio. This is called crossover. This comes in handy since it lets you stay in the range of gears you chose with your selection of the front chainring without having to switch chainrings.
So for example, if you’ll be riding relatively slowly like on city streets or on slight inclines or hills you would choose the middle chainring. You’ll be able to stay on that chainring even when you get up to a slightly higher speed without having to switch to the larger chainring.  Or if you’ll be riding on a relatively flat surface and at higher speeds you would choose the large chaining and you’ll be able to stay on that chainring even if you hit some inclines or small hills. This saves wear and tear on your front derailleur and makes for less confusion on your part.

Ok, that’s the end of the technical stuff.


  • Don’t be afraid to try different gears. You might find some you like better.

  • Ease up on your pedaling pressure when you shift gears. This creates less wear on your drivetrain, less stress on your body and can lessen the chances of over or under shifting which can, in some instances, cause the chain fall off.

  • If you’re using a non-index shifting system, one that doesn’t have numbers on the shifter and doesn’t ‘click’ in to gear, and you hear a rattling or grinding sound after you shift, this means you’re not all the way in gear. Move the shift lever forwards or backwards a little bit until the noise stops.

  • Don’t press the shift lever or use the twist grip shifter unless you’re in motion. Shift levers merely reposition the derailleurs and you must be in motion and pedaling for the chain to actually change gears. So if you move the shift lever when you shouldn’t, the next time you ride, the chain will want to move to the new position and this will result in some big time clanking and grinding which could damage your gears.

  • Don’t mess with the adjustments on your derailleurs unless you know what you’re doing. Chances are you won’t solve the problem you’re having and most likely you’ll end up having to bring your bike to a bike shop anyway.

  • One last don’t and this is a biggie. I referred to it earlier, but since we see it a lot I wanted mention it one more time. Don’t ride in a harder gear than you need to. We see bikes all the time with their gears set in the hardest riding position. Some people do this because they grew up riding single or 3-speed bikes and they’re used to having a bike that’s hard to pedal. Standing up and pedaling to get the bike going from a stop or merely to go faster became a habit. Some people are under the assumption that pedaling harder is better exercise. For some it’s a machismo thing. And some just aren’t aware of the advantages of today’s gearing systems and settle for what they have done in the past. WRONG !
    You no longer have to struggle to get your bike moving or to pick up speed. Pedaling harder is not only NOT better exercise, but it also causes unnecessary wear and tear on your bike and can actually cause long term physical damage to you, especially in your knee joints. Macho smacho. And finally, you don’t have to settle anymore. The gears are there for a reason. Use them. Cycling is a fun sport and it can be more enjoyable for you if you use your gears properly.


Ok, let’s sum this all up.

The shift lever or twist grip on the left hand side of your handlebar shifts the front derailleur allowing you to choose one of three ranges to ride in. The one on the right shifts the rear derailleur allowing you to make small changes within each range.

If you feel like you’re pedaling too hard, use the right hand shifter to switch to an easier gear (like from 3 up to 7 on your shift lever indicator). If you feel like the pedaling is too easy or you’re pedaling too fast, use the right hand shifter to switch to an harder gear (like from 8 down to 4).

If you’re riding in a hilly area, use the shifter on the left hand side to switch to the smaller (inside) chainring on your crank (position 1 on your shift lever indicator). If you’re riding on a smooth flat surface and at a higher speed, use the left hand shifter to switch to the larger (outside) chainring (position number 3). For normal riding shift to the middle chainring (position number 2).

That’s about all there is to it. Enjoy your ride.

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